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Watching the Chase for the Sprint Cup, you're often left wondering, particularly after a poor finish by a driver: Is he still in the hunt? Does he still have a chance at this year's title?
I wanted a predictive formula just to satisfy my own curiosity about when a driver was in trouble. So two years ago, I established the Rule of 72.
I started with the average finish of each past Chase champion. (For example, in 2004, Kurt Busch had an 8.9 average finish. In 2011, Tony Stewart had a 6.3 average finish.)
I took the eight previous Chase champions (2004-12), eliminated the highest and lowest figures and then determined the champion's average race finish was 7.1. And that's how I came up with the Rule of 72.
Here's how it works: We add up the drivers' Chase finishes from week to week. And if a driver's total finishes exceeds 72, that driver is eliminated from contention.
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Let's go back to last year for an example. Here's how Kasey Kahne finished in his first nine races of the 2012 Chase: third at Chicago, fifth at New Hampshire, 15th at Dover, 12th at Talladega, eighth at Charlotte, fourth at Kansas, third at Martinsville, 25th at Texas and fourth at Phoenix. Those finishes, when added together, give us a total of 79.
Kahne finished third in the Chase. But we eliminated his chances entering the final race at Homestead-Miami. Even though he had five top-five finishes, he had exceeded 72 when his total race finishes were added together.
In fact, entering the final race of last season at Homestead, only two drivers were under 72 and had a chance at the championship -- Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. So the Rule of 72 did its job.
There's another factor to consider: We have to acknowledge that the bonus points NASCAR awards for wins will come into play. Take Matt Kenseth, for example. He entered this year's Chase with 15 bonus points. That's essentially the same as gaining 15 track positions. And we also have to account for drivers like Jeff Gordon, who entered the Chase with no bonus points.
All drivers will start the Chase at zero in the Rule of 72. But as we account for bonus points for wins, those drivers with bonus points will actually start with a negative balance.
I like giving attention where attention is deserved, and this formula helps me do just that. I can establish by the fourth or fifth race of the Chase that this driver, this team or this group of drivers is out of the running -- and we're going to give attention to these four or five other drivers because, mathematically, they're still in the game. As early as the third week of the Chase, we might be eliminating drivers, and it's not unreasonable that a driver could be eliminated after just two races.
While the formula is meant to show which drivers are eliminated, it does illustrate that winning the Chase is about assembling 10 outstanding races. Can you survive one bad race? Sure, if you offset that with top-5 finishes. Can you survive two bad races? Perhaps -- if you offset that with several wins, the way Tony Stewart did in 2011.
When I look at the Chase, it's very clear that the champion is no longer rewarded for having the best season on average. The champion is determined by the ability to put together 10 outstanding Chase races.
Of the nine Chases we've had, seven have been won by two drivers: Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. It speaks to the talent level of both these drivers and how difficult it is to perform on a half-mile track one week, a 2.66-mile superspeedway the next, then a 1-mile concrete oval, and then a 1½-mile track. The diversity of the Chase favors the most talented drivers. There's no doubt in my mind that the cream rises to the top in this format.